ORAC – The Power of Plants to Eliminate Free Radicals
Lisa Murray RDN, LD
Oxidation is a chemical reaction that can produce oxidizing agents called free radicals. Oxidation is a necessary part of metabolizing food into energy and free radicals are a natural byproduct of our metabolic processes.
Fortunately, a healthy diet provides us with antioxidants in our food. These antioxidants will find and bind free radicals so they don’t build up and cause cellular damage. Carotenoids, polyphenols and vitamin C are abundant in fruits and vegetables and are all antioxidants. Vitamin E, zinc, selenium and a host of other nutrients and phytochemicals are also present in a varied and healthy diet.
This was all designed so our bodies would maintain oxidative balance – as long as we live in a pristine environment, drinking pure uncontaminated water, breathing unpolluted air, and consuming only the untainted natural harvest provided by Mother Nature. While ideal, this scenario is far from realistic as drinking, eating and breathing chemical pollutants have become part of our daily lives.
It’s really not what Mother Nature intended – so what do we do about it?
While there are many ways to describe what antioxidants do inside the body, one definition of antioxidants is any substance that inhibits oxidation or removes potentially damaging oxidizing agents called “free radicals”. The leading health problems facing patients today, including conditions like heart disease, cancer and dementia, have been linked to increased levels of oxidative damage and inflammation.
Antioxidant sources, like foods, herbs, spices and teas, help reduce the oxidative damage of free radicals. In order to determine and compare the antioxidant value of various foods, the National Institute on Aging (NIA) at the National Institute of Health (NIH) developed a unit of measurement for antioxidant content and called it ORAC which stood for Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity.
ORAC tested the power of a plant to absorb and eliminate free radicals.
Note, I say “stood for” instead of “stands for”, because they officially discontinued the research back in 2012 citing the following two reasons:
- ORAC values are routinely misused by food and dietary supplement manufacturing companies to promote their products and by consumers to guide their food and dietary supplement choices.
- The values indicating antioxidant capacity have no relevance to the effects of specific bioactive compounds, including polyphenols on human health.
While I can agree with the first half of reason number one, I can’t agree with the rest – and neither did many nutrition researchers. Discontinued or not, the ORAC charts provide a lot of useful information when trying to identify and incorporate healthy, high antioxidant foods into your diet.
Thankfully, ORAC charts, and all that valuable research is still readily available on the Web. I learn something every time I look at it, for example, pecans….who knew?
ORAC values are based on 100 grams of each food or herb, so you have to keep in mind that while it’s easy to eat 100 grams of blueberries (a heaping half cup), it’s not so easy to consume the same amount of oregano! Still, it illustrates the great value of incorporating more herbs and spices, which have high concentrations of antioxidants, into your daily diet.
You don’t have to eat a half cup of cinnamon, or pecans or chocolate, but small appropriate amounts of many different things consumed throughout the day can provide a big antioxidant win.
Based on ORAC scores provided on the Superfoodly website, below are some of the top antioxidant foods compared by weight (100 gms):
- Dark chocolate: 20,816 ORAC score
- Cocoa: 80,933 ORAC score
- Pecans: 17,940 ORAC score
- Artichoke (boiled): 9,416 ORAC score
- Elderberries: 14,697 ORAC score
- Wild blueberries: 9,621 ORAC score
- Cranberries: 9,090 ORAC score
- Kidney beans: 8,606 ORAC score
- Blackberries: 5,905 ORAC score
- Goji berries: 4,310 ORAC score
- Cilantro: 5,141 ORAC score
Among herbs and spices, since the ORAC scores are so high, you can see how just small amounts of these various herbs and spices added to foods can boost your antioxidant protection in a big way:
- Cloves: 314,446 ORAC score
- Cinnamon: 267,537 ORAC score
- Oregano: 159,277 ORAC score
- Turmeric: 102,700 ORAC score
- Cumin: 76,800 ORAC score
- Parsley (dried): 74,349 ORAC score
- Basil: 67,553 ORAC score
- Ginger: 28,811 ORAC score
- Thyme: 27,426 ORAC score
All fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants which is one reason it’s important to incorporate them into every meal and snack. And, for additional support in helping our bodies deal with the toxic world we live in, antioxidant supplements provide reinforcement for combatting the ever-present problem of free radicals.
For more information on ORAC values of specific foods, check out the resources below: